Going After the Family

On Friday President Trump fired Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman from his post on the National Security Council and Gordon Sondland from his job as Ambassador to the European Union, in both cases because they testified before the House committees that eventually impeached the president. For good measure Trump also fired Lt. Col. Yevgeny Vindman from his NSC job, even though his only connection to the impeachment matter is that he’s the other Vindman’s brother.
Trump’s loyalists can rightly argue that all three served at the president’s pleasure, and presidents have broad constitutional authority to fire almost any executive branch employee for almost any reason, but in these cases the reasons look bad to anyone who’s not a Trump loyalist.
Alexander Vindman won several decorations during his service in the Iraq War, including a Purple Heart, and his integrity was never questioned as he rose through the ranks to his NSC job as the go-to guy on Ukrainian affairs, where his fluency in both Ukrainian and Russian was one of several hard-to-find credentials. When he complied with a congressional subpoena and testified under oath that he was aware of efforts by Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani and some associates to obtain help for Trump’s reelection in exchange for congressionally-authorized but withheld military aid, though, the Trump loyalists branded him a “deep state” conspirator. Vindman knew the Ukrainian language because he’d been born there and was a toddler when his father had escaped with the family to America, which Trump fans found mighty suspicious, and despite all the medals and the years of service to both Democratic and Republican administrations the fact that he’d given testimony detrimental to Trump was sufficient proof of treason.
Sondland is a self-made billionaire who had no relevant educational credentials or foreign policy or any other governmental experience when he became Ambassador to the European Union, and the only apparent reason he had the job was because he’d given a million dollars to Trump’s inaugural committee. Even so, he was also branded a “Never Trumper” and “deep state” conspirator after he testified about his personal involvement in the effort by Giuliani and Secretary of Energy Rick Perry to get help for Trump’s reelection by withholding aid to the Ukrainian government. The White House declined opportunities to have Giuliani or Perry or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo or the moonlighting Office of Management and Budget director and White House Chief of Staff or anyone else with relevant information take an oath and dispute the testimony, so we’re inclined to believe every word Sondland said.
Trump didn’t deny that the two were fired as retribution for their testimony, and instead accused them of “insubordination” for complying with congressional subpoenas and giving truthful testimony. That’s arguably within his constitutional authority, although there’s an argument that he’s confessed to a violation of 18 U.S. Code § 1513, which prohibits retaliation against witnesses, victims or informants, and that in any case it looks petty and vindictive, but at this point such arcane legal and ethical arguments don’t much matter. Trump no doubt believes that taking vengeance on his enemies is in the public interest, and all but one of the Republican majority bought the argument made in the impeachment trial that gives him the right to do whatever he wants.
Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch was removed from her post even before she testified, and Ambassador Bill Taylor, who was called out of retirement after a stellar career of foreign service by Pompeo to be envoy to Ukraine afterwards has also been relieved of duty following his testimony. The inspector general of the intelligence agencies who passed a “whistleblower’s” complaint to Congress to start all this mess is expected to fired any moment, and anyone else who had anything to say that Trump didn’t want to hear during the impeachment affair is by now polishing his or her resume. They’ll all have it coming, as far as Trump and his loyalists are concerned.
The case of Yevgeny Vindman is harder to explain, as he was a well-respected senior law and ethics official on the NSC and had nothing to do with anything about Ukraine, and never said a word to the press or congress against Trump. He was clearly fired solely because he was the other Vindman’s brother, and unless you believe in the ruthless Mafia tactic of going after the  family that’s hard to justify.
At least they’ll fare better than they would have in Russia or North Korea or any of the other authoritarian states Trump so admires. Both Vindmans will be reassigned to other and less stressful military assignments, and Sondland is still a self-made billionaire, although a million bucks short for his support of Trump. Taylor is returned to a well-earned retirement that was so rudely interrupted when Pompeo lured him to the Trump administration, and Yovanovitch has her reputation and retirement benefits intact and could earn some compensation down the line from a  book deal. As for the rest of the targets of Trump’s revenge, they’ll probably wind up with good jobs and less legal jeopardy than Trump will deal with in the coming years.
On the same day he fired the Vindmans and Sondland Trump said at the National Prayer Breakfast that he didn’t agree with the Bible about forgiving one’s enemies. He also seems to reject the Good Book’s sound advice about leaving vengeance to God.

— Bud Norman

Pompeo vs. National Public Radio

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is having a nasty spat with a National Public Radio reporter named Mary Louise Kelly, and we’re sure that President Donald Trump and his most ardent admirers are loving it. The true Trump believers despise pretty much all media except for Fox News and the Sinclair Network and their favorite talk radio talkers, and have a special disdain for such fancy-pants and know-it-all outlets as NPR, so they love seeing those pesky reporters being treated rudely.
Since the age of 19 we’ve been involved in some journalism pursuit or another, and that’s been such a long, long time we’ve become inured to a certain amount of press-bashing. There was no way of avoiding someone’s anger when we covered Wichita’s divisive anti-abortion protests and pro-abortion rights counter-protests back in the ’90s, and even though we’d been interns in the office of Sen. Bob Dole and always voted for him he tried to score some points by lashing out at us, and no matter how meticulously we balanced the Republican and Democratic arguments in our coverage of ant campaign we always got hateful letters from one side or the other and usually both.
Although we well understand the conservative complaint that most of the press leans toward liberalism, and have made that case in countless editorial meetings and internet essays, but that nasty spat between Pompeo and Kelly seems another example of how it’s gone too far. We voted for Pompeo every time he ran for Kansas’ fourth district House seat, but we’ve lost a lot of respect for him since then, and in this case it appears he’s being dishonest and dodging legitimate questions and losing his temper in a way that Secretaries of State should never do.
It all started during a long-scheduled interview when Kelly asked Pompeo about the firing of Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, which is an important matter in the current impeachment trial of Trump, and Pompeo replied that “I agreed to come to on your show today to talk about Iran,” then angrily answered follow-up questions by insisting that he’d defended all State Department employees, and according to NPR he then “stood, leaned and silently glared at Kelly for several seconds before leaving the room.”
By NPR’s account, a few moments later Kelly was called into Pompeo’s private living room at the State Department, where he shouted at her for asking questions about Ukraine, which he insisted had not been agreed to when scheduling the interview. Kelly said Pompeo shouted “Do you think the American people care about Ukraine?,” with Kelly adding that he’d used the “f-word” a couple of times during the tirade. She also said Pompeo dared her to find Ukraine on a map with no names.
When NPR reported this, Pompeo charged that they’d violated a journalistic oath to keep the second conversation off the record. A later Pompeo statement called it “another example of how unhinged the media has become in its quest to hurt President Trump and this administration.”
NPR is indeed a left-leaning news organization, and they have that annoying soft-spoken and haughty-sounding way of broadcasting that always grates on our ears, but their account of the matter seems more true to our experienced eyes, and they don’t just make stuff up the way the Trump administration does. Both Iran and Ukraine are matters of public interest that any experienced journalist would want to talk about with the Secretary of State, and we can’t imagine that the seasoned Kelly and her seasoned producers would have agreed to leave Ukraine out of the interview. Kelly didn’t bring a microphone into Pompeo’s personal living room, but according the the rules of the journalism game that’s not the same as agreeing to go off the record, and we can’t imagine Kelly doing that. Pompeo confirmed the part about daring Kelly to find Ukraine on the map when he “tweeted” that “Ukraine is not Bangladesh,” but we can’t imagine that a woman with a Master’s degree in European studies from Cambridge University who has also extensively reported from south Asia would make that glaring mistake.
We can far more easily imagine that Pompeo was simply in no mood to answer any questions from a pesky reporter about the arguably impeachable Ukraine matter, which he’s up to his neck in and keeps looking worse with each passing day of audio and video recordings and other evidence in the hated mainstream media, and he became, for lack of a better word, unhinged, and in a way that Secretaries of State should never do. By now lashing out at anyone who asks a question rather than answering it is either a feature or a bug of the Trump administration, depending on your point of view. He was mostly well-hinged back when he had the relatively easy job of being Kansas’ fourth district congressman, with only the decimated Kansas media and its mostly Republican audience to contended with, but he lately seems under more stress.
The die-hard fans will continue to love the administration’s robust resistance to hated media, and believe they’re just speaking truth to power, but the rest of the country will want to some hear honest answers to the pesky but quite reasonable questions that are being asked of the people who are actually in power.

— Bud Norman

The Much-Panned Impeachment Trial

The impeachment trial of President Donald Trump is so far getting fairly good ratings, given all the diverse offerings available these days, but the television critics on the right find it boring. It’s a matter of utmost importance to the nation, they’ll admit, but they say it lacks sizzle and is not worth watching.
The critics have a point, as it’s not the sort of well-scripted and tightly edited courtroom dramas that viewers have become accustomed to, with no sex or nudity but a lot of legalistic blah-blah-blah. Democratic and Republican Senators alike were seen playing with fidget spinners reading books and dozing off during the proceedings, which have stretched into the morning hours. The outcome is seemingly predetermined, too, and most Americans have already made up their minds what they think about that.
The Senate Republicans are mostly determined to make the show as boring as possible. They’re adding plenty of their own legalistic blah-blah-blah, and trying to block a star-studded cast of former and current administration officials and Trump’s current personal lawyer from offering what would probably be riveting and ratings-grabbing testimony. The potential witnesses might be able to exonerate the president and expose a “deep state” conspiracy to depose him, for all we know, which would easily beat the last episode of “M*A*S*H” as television history’s most-watched show, but for some reason the Republicans would prefer the trial not get bogged down with witnesses and evidence and all that stuff.
Even so, we find it all quite riveting. We’ve sat through countless hours of legislative hearings and court proceedings and Ingmar Bergman movies and Joseph Conrad novels in our day, and spent much of our early teen years binge-watching Watergate hearings, and have learned to enjoy slogging through the slow-moving but fascinatingly complex plots about matters of upmost importance. This one features a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction hero or villain, depending on your point of view, and a variety of interesting characters that might or not be given any speaking parts, and what doesn’t happen will be as conspicuous as what does.
We should issue a “spoiler alert,” as the kids say, but Trump will almost surely be acquitted, and some 40 percent of the country will be fine with that. The rest of the country will think he was guilty, though, especially if the Republicans block any witnesses or testimony, and the season finale won’t be until next November.

— Bud Norman

A Good Day to Be in Switzerland

President Donald Trump spent the first day of his impeachment trial with all the global big wigs annually gathered in Davos, Switzerland, boasting about his unprecedented accomplishments and threatening trade wars against longtime allies and trading partners. Meanwhile, back in the states, the Republicans and the Democrats were bickering about how his impeachment trial should proceed.
The Republican position is that the whole deal is a witch hunt and a hoax and a farce and a mockery and a travesty a mockery of a travesty of justice, and that no evidence or testimony suggesting otherwise should even be considered, but that’s a hard sell to what remains of a center in a polarized electorate. The Democrats had some compelling evidence and testimony when they drew up their articles of impeachment in the House, more has been reported to the press and presented to the Congress since then, and there are a lot of people the viewing public would like to see and hear. The star-studded cast includes the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Energy and the White House chief of staff and a former national security advisor and Trump’s personal lawyer and a couple of his clients, so it’s hard to explain to a country where Trump has never won majority approval in any election or opinion poll why he doesn’t want an enrapt national television audience to hear their presumably exculpatory evidence and testimony.
This matters to a few Republican Senators running for reelection in iffy states, and a few others who are comfortably far enough away from reelection to vote on their old-fashioned Republican principles, which might yet outlast Trump, and thus the Republicans find themselves negotiating from a weakened position with the damned Democrats about what happens next. At one point, the Republicans reportedly floated the offer of allowing John Bolton to testify if they could also call Hunter Biden to the stand.
If you’re new to this riveting reality show, Bolton is one of Trump’s former national security advisors, and not the one awaiting sentence on felony convictions. He’s long been known as a Cold War hold-over and very hard-line security hawk, to the extent he was a controversial pick as President George W. Bush’s United Nations ambassador even among the old-school and internationalist Republican foreign policy establishment, and he was an even odder fit in the Trump administration. He was outspoken in his continued opposition to Russian aggression and support for the allies America had gained since its victory in the Cold War, and according to the sworn testimony of some of the witnesses called by the House he had described the administration’s dealings with Ukraine, which got Trump impeached, as a “drug deal” he wanted no part of.
Since then Bolton has been one of the many once-esteemed Republican foreign policy types defenestrated from the Trump administration, signed a lucrative deal for a presumably tell-all book, and gained a newfound respect from Democrats who once hated his Republican hawkishness but hope he’ll stay true to his stubborn Republican principle if he testifies. If so, he’ll be a more valuable witness to the Democrats than Hunter Biden will be to the Republicans.
To further catch up the new viewers in this this complicated plot, Hunter Biden is the son of former Vice President and current Democratic presidential frontrunner Joe Biden, and he made a whole lot of money serving on the board of a Ukrainian company while his dad was in charge of America’s Ukrainian policy, and there’s no denying that looks bad. It looks so bad that one wonders why Trump be would be so stupid as to get himself impeached by withholding congressionally authorized to Ukraine in order to extort help in his reelection campaign, but Bolton’s testimony and the rest of the evidence might yet show that yeah, Trump is that stupid.
Neither Hunter Biden nor his dad have any relevant information to offer about whether Trump abused the powers of his office for personal gain and then obstructed congressional efforts to find out about it, which is the matter before the court, no matter what misdeeds they might have and probably did commit. The Republicans running this show are all old enough to remember “Perry Mason,” and might be hoping for that dramatic moment when one of the Bidens tearfully confesses that yes, they were guilty all along, and that it was the damned Democrats and Ukrainians who conspired to thwart Trump and American democracy.
We covered a lot of trials back in our newspaper days, though, and never witnessed such a “Perry Mason” moment. We’ve never seen a trial where the defense didn’t want to allow testimony and evidence from its presumably exculpatory witnesses, though, and over many years we’ve found that verdicts don’t always follow the facts. There’s no telling how this works out.

— Bud Norman

On What Many People Are Saying

Although we’ve done a lot of damned dumb things in life, we can at least boast that we’ve rarely fallen for even the slickest con man’s patter. Hypersensitive as we are to the English language, and being avid students of the art of rhetoric and the comedy of W.C. Fields, we can always spot the tricks a used car or time-share or snake oil salesman or other huckster uses to reel in the suckers.
Whenever making an obviously suspicious assertion they like to add “OK?” or “right?” and await the suckers’ hypnotically nodding acknowledgement of what they’ve been told. Their claims are always absurdly hyperbolic and couched in the most superlative adjectives, but most often too promising for anyone but such fatalistic sorts as ourselves to resist. They also like to throw in that some people are saying the same thing, and imply that you also want to be in the know, and that there’s something very wrong with anyone who says anything different..
By now you’ve probably figured out this is all leading up to yet another of our rants about President Donald Trump, who daily employs these tricks to peddle his suspicious claims and hyperbolic promises. We were set off by a Trump “tweet” arguing that many people believe the Senate should just summarily dismiss the impeachment charges against him without at any testimony or evidence or any sort of trial at all.
Many believe that by the Senate giving credence to a trial based on the no evidence, no crime, read the transcripts, ‘no pressure’ Impeachment Hoax, rather than an outright dismissal, it gives the partisan Democrat Witch Hunt credibility that it otherwise does not have,” he “tweeted,” adding “I agree!”
The argument at least has some truth going for it, as there are indeed “many people” who think this way, but there are also “many people” who think the Earth is flat and that shape-shifting Illuminati reptilians secretly run the world. They’re all entitled to their crackpot opinions, but so are we and the rest of a more skeptical world. We’ve read the “transcripts,” as well the sworn testimony and documentary evidence that got Trump impeached by the House of Representatives, and find it quite persuasive, so we’d like to hear a more vigorous defense from the president than what “many people” are saying.
Perhaps Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, the moonlighting White House Chief of Staff and Office of Management and Budget director Mick Mulvaney, and Trump’s personal lawyer and shadow Secretary of State Rudy Giuliani could exonerate Trump, but for some reason Trump is blocking their sworn testimony, presumably because it would give credence to the “Democrat Witch Hunt.” Former national security advisor John Bolton has said he’ll testify in an impeachment trial if subpoenaed, and we’re among the many, many people who would love to hear what he has to say under oath about all this.
Despite a slim Republican majority in the Senate there’s a good chance there will be an impeachment trial, with witnesses and evidence and withheld testimony and evidence, and it will surely be embarrassing to Trump. The good news for Trump is that there almost certainly won’t be the needed supra-majority need to remove him from office, and he will thus be able to claim he was innocent of any wrongdoing all along, and that after he says “OK?” and “Right?” many heads will nod in agreement.
Many people will disagree, though, and we’ll find out on Election Day how many there are on each side.

— Bud Norman